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Jerry Miller, Evolution Institute executive director.
Leadership Insights

Nature's Way: School Looks to Evolution as a Model for Early Learning

By Erin Flynn Jay December 27, 2016

A think tank called Evolution Institute is developing a tuition-free school for 3- to 8-year-olds in Florida to save them from academic failure and help them overcome poverty.

True to its name, the institute believes principles of evolution offer a blueprint for educating young people. Its new early learning center in East Tampa starts from the premise that human children evolved to learn in specific ways that provide a model for designing engaging classrooms and improving teaching methods. Developed in a partnership with Bible Truth Ministries, the East Tampa school will bring together children of many ages and will emphasize physical movement and self-directed play.

An evolution/science-informed approach to early learning

Evolution Institute hopes to create a model for evolution/science-informed early learning that can be scaled and replicated in more schools. The Tampa center will be the third demonstration site for the institute, which also created an upstate New York high school and a K-12 academy in Florida.

“Our focus is to create an environment during the critical early learning years that will allow children to develop the social, emotional and cognitive skills that will carry them through the remainder of their school career and afterwards,” said Jerry Miller, Evolution Institute executive director.

Miller cites research suggesting schools tend to shift low-income children between multiple school systems that disrupt their learning. Evolution Institute hopes to turn that around by creating a program that streamlines young children’s transition to the third grade and helps them succeed once they arrive.

Using public charter school funding, the institute plans to tap its network of researchers and practitioners to train teachers.

It’s not easy following nature’s model

Educators face distinct challenges when redesigning learning environments and teaching practices to align with Mother Nature’s guidance on how children learn. Miller said one of the most obvious issues is high-stakes testing, which yields instructional practices that can actually diminish a child’s learning in a quest to improve test scores.

“There are also likely to be regional differences in understanding of what makes for a good learning environment. In some settings, it is believed that teaching the children the alphabet, for instance, when they are 3 or 4 years of age is a good thing, when in fact it may be of little value or even may hurt the child’s literacy skills,” he said.

How can early childhood educators best combine mixed-age classes, physical movement and self-directed play to teach students? Start with play, Miller advises.

“When children are allowed to play with peers, with older and younger children, and with adults, they naturally learn,” Miller said. “They learn how to negotiate with others about fairness, problem solving and understanding.”

An adult who asks children questions that make them think or probe helps them develop new insights and cognitive abilities. Learning skills also develop in social settings and novel situations. When teaching aligns with children’s natural way of learning, it can be enjoyable — and more effective — than when the child sits at a desk and memorizes.

Organizing the social environment to enhance learning

Schools will still look like schools in Evolution Institute’s model, because much of the focus will be on structuring the social environment to enhance learning. “We will have toys, tables, chairs and the usual complement of ‘things.’ But by structuring the social and learning environment in a manner aligned with the research, we expect to have a positive impact,” he said.

Miller wants to make sure educators and education policy-makers know that his approach in the Tampa school is based on science — but not rocket science.

“The research is well-established, and evaluations have shown this style of learning to be an effective approach,” he said. “This becomes even more critical as education is more and more important for success as adults.”

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